The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Why You Should Care About Poverty & Welfare

There has long been a close association between the struggle for civil rights and the fight against poverty in the United States. The drive to dismantle segregation and defeat discrimination has been centered on the need to open the gates of economic opportunity, mostly closed to minorities, women, and other by both governmental and private action.

For many Americans, the American dream includes membership in a vast middle class, a society in which the basic necessities of food, shelter, and education are available to all--with enough left over for a comfortable life. Yet the middle class dream continues disproportionately to elude minority families.

Minorities do not receive the same return for their investment in education compared to their white counterparts, even in times of nation-wide prosperity. For example, according to 1999 Current Population Survey data, white workers 18 years and older with a high school degree and working full-time earned a median income of $26,800, while those with a college degree earned $48,800

Meanwhile, their black counterparts with a high school degree earned only $22,900, and those with a college degree $38,600. Latino high school graduates working full-time reported a median income of $21,500 and college graduates $39,300. Asian and Pacific Islanders reported a median income of $22,600 for those with a high school diploma, and $40,500 for those with an undergraduate degree. 

The persistence of poverty and income inequality remains the subject of vigorous debate. Since the 1960s, policymakers and scholars have recognized that discrimination and poverty are major obstacles to opportunity in America.

Although welfare caseloads are declining for all demographic groups, in most states the rate of decline is slower for African Americans and Hispanics than for white recipients. In 1990, according to HHS data, 38% of families receiving benefits were white; 40% black, 17% Latino, and just under 3% were Asian and Pacific Islander. But by 1999, HHS data indicates that 31% of families receiving benefits are white, 38% black, 25% Latino, and 3.5% Asian and Pacific Islander.

These statistics suggest that minorities are encountering especially onerous barriers when trying to leave welfare for permanent work. A 1998 National Partnership for Women & Families survey of program providers working with low-income women, for example, found that the top three obstacles to maintaining consistent employment were transportation, child care, and education and training needs. Race and sex discrimination, limited English proficiency, and the need for family leave were also cited as significant limitations on recipients' job opportunities.

The Great Depression took a major toll on the financial well being of the United States. In 1935 as part of the Social Security Bill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the first welfare program of the twentieth century.

The next major federal initiative to address the needs of low-income Americans came with President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" in the 1960s. Medicaid and food stamps were two of the campaign's key programs.

Some of the programs, like Head Start, Medicaid and Food Stamps, continue in place and have ground under both Republican and Democratic administrations, but funding remains less than necessary to reach eligible clients. Others, like Legal Services, remain in place but under sharp constraints that have narrowed their original mandate to serve as advocates of the poor.

In the 1960s, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, warned that the nation was rapidly moving into two separate and unequal Americas--one white and living in the suburbs, the other nonwhite and concentrated in the center of metropolitan areas.

Since that time, a great deal of attention has been focused on the extent to which the Kerner Commission's warning has been borne out--as well as on the possible causes of and solutions to such developments.

Not surprisingly, debates over the causes of poverty -- and their solutions -- continue in the public policy context today. In a dramatic shift from the strategies of the Great Society, in 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).

Civil rights advocates and others have argued that developing opportunity through adequate funding of education, job training, and other programs is key--along with continued systematic attacks on discriminatory barriers that continue to block opportunity in employment, housing, education, and elsewhere.

Conservative critics argue that persistent poverty and income inequality are instead largely attributable to dysfunctional lifestyles among the poor--and that government benefit programs such as AFDC, Food Stamps, and Medicaid actually exacerbate the problem by discouraging the poor from working and otherwise assuming personal responsibility.

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